WRBB’s Paige Ardill caught up with Gianni Aiello, Henry LaVallee, and Grant Mullen of Naked Giants to talk about inspiration, interdisciplinary creativity, and their tour with Car Seat Headrest.
Though Henry and Grant were childhood friends, I understand that the three of you met at Battle Of The Bands. How did that connection prompt the creation of Naked Giants?
Henry LaVallee: It was an ’80s themed concert night.
Gianni Aiello: I was in another band, it was synth-pop disco, and they were Naked Giants before I joined, but a two-piece. They did a cover of ‘Funky Town’ and ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).’ We had just gotten out of high school and we were kind of at that age where it’s like, “Okay, I’m gonna explore this new chapter of my life; [I’m] gonna meet new people and hang out and make friends and whatnot,” so it was partially inspired by that, but with the music, they had just asked me to come hang out and jam and then we just started hanging out and jamming every day which is how we wrote a lot of our songs.
How do you think Seattle’s rich history of grunge has affected Naked Giants’ sound, if at all?
GA: I mean, it’s always there. I feel like you can’t really escape the whole nostalgia of it, especially when you’re talking to anyone who lived through it. The guy who produced our album SLUFF, Steve Fisk, was there and recorded a bunch of those acts. I think that there’s this constant dichotomy of trying to rebel against it and say, okay this whole thing is overplayed and the whole grunge thing is over, but when you’re traveling the country and people are like, “Oh hey! Seattle! Grunge!” It’s kind of fun to play into that. To bring it back to the now… I think Seattle is super cool, there are a bunch of fans and artists who are boomin’ and groovin’ and touring and making cool albums.
HL: The grunge influence, for me, playing in the same venues these bands played at when you’re 18 because they’re just dingy clubs every band plays at–well, maybe not dingy. But places like Chop Suey, The Crocodile. It’s also cool because the grunge scene had a very DIY taste and flavor to it I think, so it was cool being in college at the same time and being in a band in college and playing house shows and Goo Mag–which is a great ‘zene’ name.
GA: Doesn’t everybody start a zene in college? We “faux” started this zene called Goo Mag which was just gonna be this arts and music thing but we ended up all putting on this Halloween house show and we all dressed up as Nirvana! Henry had a Wayne’s World wig on and he put the hat on backward and took his shirt off…
HL: Dave Grohl. My poli-sci teacher saw it on Facebook and was like, “Oh I saw a picture of you on Facebook with your shirt off. Lookin pretty good!” and I was like yea you know… I’m pretty self-conscious about my body so I think I did a bunch of sit-ups that week to prepare. That day I only ate like, a salad.
GA: It must have worked, worked on your teacher at least.
In your interview for ANCHR Magazine, you mention that film is a big inspiration within your music. Separately, you’ve also mentioned the connection between songwriting and science. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
GA: Totally! I appreciate these types of questions, we have a journalist friend named Craig in Portland, and he’s always saying that the job of a journalist is to just pick up where other people left off, and I feel like a lot of people don’t go that extra mile to pick up on stuff like that, so thank you. But, I think it was Grant that was talking about film… I’m not a huge movie guy, I like Back To The Future…
HL: You really like Back To The Future.
GA: It’s one of my favorite movies. One, two, and three, I think they’re all pretty good. But yeah, I was never much of a film buff. I’ve always been very interested in the sciences. My mom works at a pharmaceutical company doing clinical trials for cancer drugs, which is crazy, but I think part of that is just ingrained in me. But what attracts me to music is how it’s like puzzle pieces fitting together, compositionally, rather than the spontaneity of the live show. That kind of gets old for me sometimes. I really like to go into the studio or in my bedroom and just layer upon layer upon layer and just make it fit perfectly. That’s my favorite part about music. What inspires you, Henry?
HL: That’s a good question. I was a theater kid in middle school and high school and I really loved doing it, performing and playing drums in front of people.
Doesn’t your father own an instrument company?
HL: He was a luthier; he was a guitar builder so our garage is a little workshop. This is great! This is the first time LaVallee Customs is coming up in an interview. But yeah, that was something I started doing, my dad had a stroke, so he stopped using the guitar shop that’s in our garage, but all the tools are really great for woodworking and music stuff so I started taking old drums and refurbishing them using his tools. I’d hire my artist friends to paint them and do something cool with them. In 2018, we were on tour three weeks out of every month. We were never home. So while I was home I was like, I want to do something fun, and we couldn’t hold jobs because we were only around for a week at a time, so I started taking drums and reselling them which has been great. We used to actually do lighters; we’d sell Naked Giants BIC lighters, but we’d collage them with old magazines. Now I’ve taken that to a bigger scale with a kick drum and floor tom with space backgrounds from a Hubble Telescope book, penguin cutouts, and mountains from this Cascades book and other Life magazines. That drum kit is just for me but, I don’t know. Part of me just wants to finish it and see if I could sell it for $2000.
Could you walk me through your typical songwriting process, from initial conception to final production?
GA: It hasn’t really been typical for the past year and a half just because we’ve been on the road so much. I guess as of now we each independently write stuff and we’ll get a fragment of a song or a full one and bring it to the group, and at practice, we’ll run it and see what sticks. We’ve been using this ‘al dente pasta’ metaphor for a while now, when you pull the pasta out and throw it at the wall to see if it’s ready. So it’s kind of like that. Recently though, we went to the San Juan Islands, they’re super pretty at any time of the year and not many people live there so it’s just super wooded and green. We rented out an Airbnb on Lopez Island and were there for a couple days just kind of hold up writing and recording.
HL: That was great. When we were just starting I feel as though the general way we went about it was riff, drum part, bass part, some sort of chant… the song ‘Pyramids’ was great because we thought, “what if we just made a beat that stacked and stacked back” and then the instrumental part just kind of wrote itself. Every song is something a little bit different.
I read that with SLUFF you just wanted to yell something, anything.
GA: Yeah, I had written the song and all the music and whatnot, and I was with my girlfriend – the main inspiration for it was ‘Jet’ by Paul McCartney – and so I said it needs a “jet!” but it’s a grungy song and she kind of stopped for a minute and yells “SLUFF!” and I was like “nice!”. that was it, it just fit. It made the vibe of the song. She hasn’t gotten royalties or anything but I thank her on the daily.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Will Toledo, how did you guys initially meet?
Grant Mullen: Henry met him first, I think.
HL: Yeah, we played at a teen center in East Seattle, Bellevue. The suburbs. Will had just moved there from Virginia in 2014, I had just graduated high school. We were all just starting our freshman year of college and we had been playing together for about 3 months at that point, I was covering for a friend on drums at this little place in Bellevue. Ethan Ives was the opener, he was on guitar and it was me and my friend, and then Will played with Andrew and this other dude Jason on bass. Will had met Jason and Andrew on Craigslist and it was their very first show playing as a band; they played ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,’ they played ‘Cute Thing,’ it’s actually on YouTube, this specific concert. You can look it up. Type in “Car Seat Headrest 2014 Bellevue” and you can find it. The funny thing was, though, the only audience members were the other bands playing, nobody else was there on this Friday or Saturday night in the middle of the suburbs. So I said, “Will, come see my band play next weekend” and he really liked us, took us on tour in November right when Trump got elected. That happened while we were on tour in Albuquerque and we were like “we’re fucked.” I just remember that being the date. Anyways, then he messaged Gianni and asked if he played keys, which he does, and then he asked us if we could play in their band and we said, “only if we open.”
What is your favorite thing about touring with Car Seat Headrest?
GM: The green rooms.
GA: We get more money, we get more space, more food.
GM: It’s fun for me to play in their band and just focus on playing guitar and not have to be playing Naked Giants, just be focused on tone.
HL: I like playing the shaker for a whole song, I’ll just be standing there going “chuka chuka chuka chuka” getting hypnotized and loving it, and now the tambourine comes in, now the back beat, oh yeah!
GA: Being thrust from our level of shows, I mean we’d been playing 100, 200 capacity rooms and now this kind of stuff, it’s just kind of unspeakably awesome, and we’ve met so many good people and met a lot of great fans.
HL: I love playing in front of big crowds, it’s so fun.
GA: And Car Seat Headrest fans are so devoted, once they like something they’re like “I love this!”
What is the strangest thing that’s happened on the road, so far?
GM: There’ve been a lot of strange things, man.
GA: Our friend Jack came with us on one tour to sell merch and on the second day of the tour we were in Omaha, Nebraska, going to a Taco Bell drive-thru and he was out in the parking lot on the phone. By the time we had gone around and were going to pick him up, we found him on the curb with his arm up just bleeding profusely from his mouth and we were like “Jack what happened?” and he had fainted, he was anemic and had Crohn’s disease which he actually found out from that incidence. He had fainted and smacked his face head first on the pavement. Jack is a metal head and has gone to a lot of metal shows and broken his nose like six times, and that night the guys weren’t there, but I was sitting with him in the van making sure he was okay, and in his concussed mentality, he went to some really strange places. I have a lot of it recorded on my phone. I actually sampled it in a song for my solo project, Animal Camera. But yeah, he got really trippy with it, and we had to fly him home because he was not well.
HL: They said he couldn’t be near any loud noises or flashing light.
GM: Throw on some ear plugs, a blindfold…
If you were to explain SLUFF, your debut album, in 3 words, what would they be?
HL: Our first album.
GA, GM: That’s it!